A Bill Moyers essay on the role of impeachment in American politics.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
Impeachment. The word feared and loathed by every sitting president is back. It's in the air and on your computer screen, a growing clamor aimed at both President Bush and Vice-President Cheney.
This week's news only agitated the clamor. The president acknowledged that someone in his administration did leak the name of a CIA agent to the press, but he said let's move on — even as he refused to let his former White House counsel testify to Congress about political influence at the Justice Department.
So the talk in Washington was of executive arrogance. All the more so as the Democratic House voted to withdraw US troops from Iraq by next spring despite a threat of veto by President Bush. A public opinion poll from the American Research Group reports that more than four in ten Americans — 45 per cent -- favor impeachment hearings for President Bush and more than half -- 54 per cent — favor putting Vice President Cheney in the dock.
Are these the first tremors of a major shock wave, or just much ado about nothing? First, let's take a look at the last time a president found himself fighting off an impeachment campaign. It happened less than a dozen years ago. And what was the issue:
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky...
BILL MOYERS: But he did. And even after that denial in early 1998, President Clinton lied again seven months later -- this time under oath to a federal grand jury. But that very evening he had a change of heart.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: "Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong...I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that."
BILL MOYERS: For one powerful Republican member of Congress, an apology wasn't enough. Tom Delay, then the majority whip of the House, convinced speaker Newt Gingrich and Republican leaders that Clinton's lie called for nothing less than removing the president from office -- impeachment. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr was commissioned to gather the evidence. Starr eventually sent 36 boxes of evidence to the capitol. They catalogued his investigation of Clinton's finances, a sexual harassment suit filed by Paula Jones and sting operations mounted by the prosecutor to uncover the details of the Lewinsky affair. Nearly 500 pages summarizing the report were quickly posted on the Internet. For the next month, the house judiciary committee waded through the report. What the case meant depended largely on party affiliation. Democrats insisted it all came down to lying about sex.
REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D-FL): The president betrayed his wife...he did not betray his country
BILL MOYERS: Republicans, who controlled the House, argued it was about something more important.
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE BILL MCCOLLUM (R-FL): Truthfulness is the glue that holds our justice system together.
REP. BOB BARR (R-GA): With his conduct and his arrogance...William Jefferson Clinton has thrown a gauntlet at the feet of the Congress.
REP. JOHN CONYERS JR. (D-MI): This is not Watergate. This is an extramarital affair.
REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER (R - WI): Even the president of the United States does not have the license to lie.
REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D-FL): Wake up, America, they are about to impeach our president.
BILL MOYERS: On October 5, 1998, the House Judiciary Committee authorized a full impeachment inquiry…only the third U.S. president in history to be seriously threatened with removal from office. The constitution says a president may be impeached for "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors". Experts were called to interpret those words:
A. LEON HIGGINBOTHAM JR., FORMER U.S. APPEALS COURT JUDGE: There has never been, never been an impeachment proceeding on this miniscule level...
ARTHUR SCHLESINGER, JR., UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK: All the independent counsel's charges thus far derive from the president's lies about his sex life. His attempts to hide personal misbehavior are certainly disgraceful. But if they are to be deemed impeachable, then we reject the standards laid down by the framers in the Constitution and trivialize the process of impeachment.
PROF. ALAN DERSHOWITZ, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: The only reason the majority of this committee cares about perjury is because they believe that President Clinton, their political opponent, is guilty of it.
BILL MOYERS: The House Judiciary listened…and then drafted two articles of impeachment accusing Clinton of perjury…a third accusing him of obstruction of justice and yet a fourth, of making false statements. A week later, December 19, 1998, the full House met to consider the articles. They approved two of them…one for perjury…another for obstruction of justice. Republican leaders called for Clinton to resign. He didn't, and now it was the Senate's constitutional task to conduct the impeachment trial ordered by the House. The Senators met behind closed doors, and on Friday, February 12, 1999, the verdict was delivered to the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
CHIEF JUSTICE WILLIAM REHNQUIST: Is not guilty as charged in the second article of impeachment.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people.